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My Father's Brother by Anna Black

Anna Black HeadshotWhen I was really little, it wasn’t as bad as it is now, or maybe I just wasn’t mature enough to see it. Uncle T used to play with us kids, or give us birthday presents, or impress us five-year-olds by walking on his hands—but that was a very long time ago. 

Uncle T has always lived with my grandparents, even though as I write this he is in his forties. The house itself is small, and was decently nice before the animals—never less than one dog and one cat, usually more. Right now, there are two dogs and two cats, though the ashes of one cat are still in a box on a shelf somewhere in my grandmother’s closet. Stacks upon stacks of stuff are piled everywhere in this house: DVDs, books, games, “As Seen On TV” products, fad exercise equipment that I know nobody in that house will ever use—the mess is endless. We used to be able to sit in the basement, on a couch, and play video games, but now that couch is covered with things. Food (some of it expired, bought five years ago) is scattered in unopened boxes everywhere, and clothes litter the downstairs room. I wonder if they ever actually do laundry, or just buy new clothes and throw the old clothes away. 

But the condition of the house is another story. Suffice it to say that my uncle lives there with my grandparents, just as he has always done. He has his own domain in their basement, a wooden door that nobody but my aunt dares to knock on when he disappears for hours on end.

Uncle T is a huge and hulking man. Though he and my father are both of average height, my uncle started working out in his twenties, and later, supplementing with various bulking techniques and steroids. He’s always had enormous muscles, lumbering around like a giant in his tight white tank tops. When I was little, I always thought he was just a strong man. Now, he scares me. He is like one of those old, rattly metal pressure cookers—contained for the most part, but as soon as something triggers a switch, explosive. I’ve never been on the receiving end of that, but my dad has witnessed his episodes and, on occasion, has told us, “If your uncle ever gets out of control and we tell you to go to the car, don’t wait for us—just get out of the house.” There hasn’t ever been a situation like that, thank goodness, but the fact that my parents knew that, as young children, we should be prepared for one, is what is truly sad. 

“My chest hurts…I just can’t BREATHE right,” my uncle said, sweating at his spot at the dining table. His face was beet red, through the artificial tan. Veins were popping on his forehead and neck, and although he had actually been docile and somewhat pleasant for our earlier Thanksgiving dinner, something was definitely off now. 

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” my grandmother offered, but he was reluctant. My husband (who works in EMS and is familiar with situations like this) was watching, mouth pressed shut, a knowing look in his eyes. Later, talking to my dad, he explained that my uncle’s pain was definitely due to a drug misuse. 

“That’s why he disappeared in his room, most likely,” my husband said. “Ate dinner, went down there and shot some up….” We were never told whether Uncle T actually went to the hospital or if he survived to overdose on heroin another day.

You see, the truth is, my grandparents never stopped babying him. He’s never kept a job for long, never had a relationship that lasted more than a couple years, and, as far as I can tell, takes no responsibility for taking care of the house or the enormous financial stress and debt that my grandparents are constantly under. Most of the pets are actually my uncle’s, but he just doesn’t take care of them. If he’s feeling especially gracious, he’ll watch the dogs for an afternoon so that my grandparents can leave their house and come visit their other son. If he’s not, then they are stuck with animals that they never asked for. 

My uncle is almost the stereotypical definition of “white trash.” He’s racist, cruel, crude, violent, addicted, irresponsible, immature, and unpredictable. Ever since I was nine or ten, he has scared me, and the thought of him as a truck driver (his current, or most recent, job) scares me even more. 

But there are moments when he seems to enjoy chatting over dinner, teasing us for not enjoying pickled beets, and listening to my husband’s more colorful stories from working on the ambulance. There are times when I look at his honey-brown eyes and they look so much like my father’s that I can’t help but wonder why. How do two brothers end up so different, so apart? How did he get here, and what choices led him down this path? How do I reconcile the fact that he is family to the fact that he disagrees with almost every single belief that I have? 

It’s a helpless feeling, wanting to help and having absolutely no way to do so, being afraid of someone that you should look up to. Because, even for all the things that I’ve written, for all the terrible things that he has done and continues to do, I still care—I pity and I hope and I pray for a brighter future ahead. 

Family is family. 

Department of Writing and Rhetoric

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